“It’s all about how different cultures view childhood”

So explains anthropologist Meredith F. Small in describing the difference between how we treat our 4-year-olds and “preschool” age children in other cultures. Kids need to work–not at desks–to learn what it means to be an adult. More:

How competent are 4-year-olds? They are competent enough to work. By “work,” I don’t mean on the factory line, or forced labor of any kind. Instead, I mean tasks that are, by any cultural standard, age-appropriate.

Look outside Western culture and watch children, even very small children, as they gather firewood, weed gardens, haul water, tend livestock, care for younger children and run errands. And no one complains because they are mostly outside and usually with other children.

By doing these chores, they also master life skills, like caring for a baby or how to herd goats, and with that comes proficiency and responsibility.

Agreed. I’ve read a few of Barbara Curtis’ Montessori-method books and understand the value of work for our preschooler. She folds cloth napkins (after nuzzling the warm laundry pile). She sweeps and dusts beside me on cleaning days. She loves making dinner: washing and drying potatoes, counting each one thrown into a pot. She sings her phone number and address. She carries her clean laundry across the hall to her room and places each bundle–shirts, pants, socks, etc–into the correct drawer. She’s 3. There is no need for outside-the-house preschool. She learns more daily at home. What does this “work” teach young children?

Children in these cultures are also contributors to the household economy. Karen Kramer, an anthropologist at Harvard, found that the time Mayan children spend working for the household increases with age to about 30 percent of the day, even when they attend school. Compare that with nagging an American teenager to wash the dishes (10 minutes), put the laundry into the washing machine (4 minutes) or pick up their rooms (10 minutes to 3 hours).

It’s all about how different cultures view childhood.

Exactly. More to the point: it’s all about how different cultures view work ethic. We used to instill one:

In non-Western culture, parents expect children to learn about what it means to be an adult by doing adult work. When we were an agriculturally based nation, American children used to work just as hard and contribute in the same way. But now, Western children are trained intellectually, in school, where they are taught to think about things as the entree to adulthood, and few contribute anything to the household economy.

That cultural expectation is now creeping earlier and earlier as 3-year-olds go to preschool and 4–year-olds start kindergarten. Everyone sits quietly at their desks, thinking and thinking, just when they’d rather be out tending cows or weeding the garden.

Amen. Involve your preschooler. Involve your toddler. We all have something to contribute. Funny, isn’t it, how we learn something along the way?

Cross-posted at Pundit & Pundette.


10 Responses

  1. […] say two and over, too. Kids should be outside. Playing. Working. By our sides. Are kids parked there or emulating our own […]

  2. As a new parent who is learning, this was very educational for me. My wife and I need to make some decisions. I don’t think I can convince her to eliminate the TV. It provides the only break for her during the day. But we definitely need to cut it back.

    • Manny, I’ll offer this Rosemond tidbit: the vast majority of successful students were allowed minimal exposure to tv or computers at an early age. And I can attest to the difference in friends’ kids and former students, those who watch freely versus those who watch little. The former group can rarely entertain themselves. They require constant outside stimulus. The latter group can play for hours on end. Solo. In groups. With blocks. With crayons. etc. We only let our daughter watch 45 min max daily–far less than the average 2 hrs a day. But for us, the tantrums (“more! more!”) and bartering (“I’ll pick up my toys if you let me watch one more Diego”) were enough to pull the plug. And I’m glad we did. I know your boy is a little younger, but invest in toys that were around 30 years ago. Building toys. Art supplies. Nothing flashy, blingy, etc. Save oatmeal boxes and milk cartons=Building supplies after decorating. Seriously. I picked up a doll house for pjT at a yard sale last summer and saved it for a while. She has very little “real” furniture for it, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what she makes on her own out of other boxes from toys, legos, etc. And LEGO duplo blocks (for toddlers) rock. Again, hours of play. The explanations I’ve read make sense: when kids are forced to create toys and use imagination, it’s endless. They can repurpose with delight. But a toy that does one thing only is worthless. We buy mountains of books at yard sales every summer. And rotate those every few months. Good luck–I know it’s a leap. It was painful for a week, but now she plays on her own better than she ever has and becomes more engrossed in what she’s doing.

      For your wife and Lisa both: start involving the kids in making dinner if that’s the witching hour. pjT usually has her own bowl of water and washes the veggies. Dries veggies. Sprinkles spices I’ve already poured out or cheese, etc. Pushes the buttons on the blender or food processor. Pours any liquids–cream, stock, already measured. It really doesn’t take as long to make dinner as it seems. And we have fun. Potatoes are a frequent dinner item–I gave her a “potato brush” to use. She loves it. But with a little planning ahead, she’s chomping at the bit to help and is ALWAYS very proud of what she’s accomplished. She’s an adventurous eater anyway, but involving her in the food prep always makes her more eager to try new things. Now that it’s wicked hot and I don’t want to cook in the house, I’m teaching her how to crimp foil packets for the grill, lol.

      • Thanks pjMom. You have me convinced. I think I am going to convince my husband that we need to cut out TV entirely. And then maybe add 30 min a day back in, only if we think it would be appropriate. I’m also looking into getting this book.

  3. Amen sister.

    pjMom, are you sending toddler to public or private school? Or homeschooling? Schools scare me to death. Our guy has one more year at home and then will start preschool at 4.

    I need to get my husband on board with the kids helping more. I did a lot of household chores as a kid but I think he just wants them to watch Tv or play all the time. Ugh.

    • @Lisa, we’re still debating schools. Unless pjT can go to a Core Knowledge, cursive first, Saxon Math school, I want to homeschool using that curriculum. My husband isn’t quite on board yet. Here in Colorado, such schools exist as charters. Fabulous schools. My bar is high. I’ve seen some parochial schools that employ this combo, but I’m wary (even though I’m Catholic) of some parochial schools that espouse social justice. So far at 3 we’re “homeschooling” preschool though I’m starting to get a lot of flack from some family members who tout the “socialization” line. She gets plenty playing with neighbors and friends.

      As far as helping goes, pjT doesn’t see it as helping. We put on music and clean. She has her “jobs.” We completely cut out TV a month ago and won’t be looking back. Her 45 minutes a day or less turned into a Veruca Salt tantrum every. Single. Day. “I want MORE! And I want it NOW!” Not so much. We told her the tv was broken. End of story. She still asks occassionally. I made the fatal error of allowing her 25 minutes of Sesame Street when I travelled solo with her this weekend so I could get ready. Wicked tantrum ensued. So no more. It was painful the first week, but we’ve been sailing ever since. Her level of play and imagination have developed exponentially

      • You are emboldening me to cut out TV entirely. I can do it right? My only thing is that I have 2 monsters to manage and not one and sometimes my sanity really, really needs them to be tuned to something (mostly at the end of the day when I’m making dinner). But… at what price? Our 3 y.o. is not great at independent play but does have a vivid imagination. I’d also like to increase his interest in books, at least as much as his own natural interest will allow. Also, again, the hubs needs to be on board.

        Good for you for taking the high road on TV…. and schools. And yeah, we’re sort of on the same page with schools. I want play-based preschool and that’s it. People here are ridiculous in their requirements and activities for little ones. To me, socialization is a 4-letter word. Anyway… thanks for sharing your add’l thoughts.

      • Most welcome. One of the chapters in John Rosemond’s New Six Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children is on tv and computers. It took me a few months to realize that this was the way we had to go. My husband and I mulled it for a few months. I will admit that I was the hesitant one because I needed that 30 minutes. Like I said, the first week was the hardest. She was rather upset that we couldn’t fix it ; ) After that, it became an odd request. But I tried to pull more of her toys out to the garage in rotation and she’s playing longer with what she’s got. I did the same with a few stacks of books (she can sit and look at books for a while. And we read at least 6 books together daily at various points. It’s good cuddle time. But she’s much more independent now, and her playtime has changed dramatically. Though I will admit that when she’s using her lego men, one is Diego, one is Alicia, and they have to go rescue animals. ; )

  4. My children love to sweep, help with laundry,etc. Where I ran into problems is consistency. Once the older one figured out that mommy expects help, she stopped helping. She’s four, but still pretty stubborn.

    • We havent run into that yet, though I can attest to a stubborn streak here, too (and she comes by it honestly!) I just put the jobs out. I will look that one up–I’m a big fan of John Rosemond. He separates allowance from chores under the rationale that both are necessary: one to teach fiscal responsibility and the other to teach familial obligation.

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